Physician assistants practice medicine as part of a team of health care professionals such as physicians and surgeons. While they are not traditional doctors, their ultimate goal is to help patients improve their health and well-being. They do this by treating illness and injury and by advising patients on how to recover fully and prevent illness or injury in the future.
These workers perform their duties in all areas of medicine, which means their tasks can vary significantly. While some physician assistants work in primary care and family medicine, others work in emergency medicine, surgery and even psychiatry.
Physician assistants have a great responsibilities, which is why they need to spend a lot of time in college and the medical field before they can even apply to physician assistant programs.
A Day in the Life of a Physician Assistant
Much like a physician or surgeon, physician assistant job duties depend a lot on the day's activities. Even if their work day is mostly planned, they may need to change their plans to care for or assist with critically ill patients — or to save someone's life.
Some of the job duties performed by physician assistants include:
- Reviewing patient medical history
- Examining patients in a medical setting
- Diagnosing patient injury or illness
- Providing essential treatment for patients, including setting broken bones or administering treatments
- Ordering diagnostic tests
- Interpreting diagnostic tests
- Counseling patients or their families on self-care during or after treatment
- Prescribing medicines to cure patients or alleviate symptoms
- Researching patient treatments
- Recording patient progress
- Promoting wellness
Important Characteristics for Physician Assistants
While aspiring physician assistants are taught important medical information during their schooling, certain traits can give students in physician assistant training programs an edge. For example, communication skills are especially important since these workers must explain complex medical issues to patients using wording they'll understand. Compassion is also important since physician assistants work directly with sick or injured patients who need help and may be in pain.
Attention to detail is crucial because these professionals need to be able to interpret patient symptoms to come up with an accurate diagnosis. Physician assistants also need to be able to solve problems quickly and efficiently, especially when patient lives are at risk.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Physician Assistant
Since physician assistants perform many of the duties doctors and surgeons perform, physician assistant programs are long and rigorous. Here are the steps someone should take to get started in this career.
1. Earn a high school diploma. Before you can apply to an undergraduate degree program or physician assistant school, you need to complete a high school diploma.
2. Complete an undergraduate degree program. Before you can earn a graduate degree during physician's assistant schooling, you first need to have earned an undergraduate degree in a discipline that could be applicable to the medical field. Options can include, but are not limited to:
- Bachelor of Science in Registered Nursing
- Bachelor of Science in Sociology
- Bachelor of Science in Biology
- Bachelor of Science in Microbiology
3. Complete at least two years of work in a medical field.
According to the AAPA, most physician assistant programs require a few years of experience in a medical field before you can apply. Jobs that can count toward your experience can include, but are not limited to:
- Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
- Medical Assistant
- Registered Nurse
- Surgical Technician
- Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
- Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
4. Complete a two-year program in physician assisting. While a physician assistant career starts with an undergraduate degree and a few years of experience in a medical career, the bulk of physician assistant schooling takes place during a two-year graduate program. Physician assistant programs include classroom and lab instruction in topics such as anatomy and physiology, pathology, clinical medicine and medical ethics. Clinical training is also offered to help students gain hands-on experience. Successful completion of a program culminates in a graduate degree in physician assisting.
5. Get certified and licensed. All states require physician assistants to become licensed before they can work. To become licensed, they must be able to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). To keep their licenses up to date, physician assistants must complete at least 100 hours of continuing education every two years, notes the BLS.
- Become a PA, American Academy of PAs, https://www.aapa.org/career-central/become-a-pa/
- Physician Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-24 Edition, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm
- Physician Assistant Program, Eastern Michigan University, https://www.emich.edu/chhs/hphp/pa/